The 5-4 decision overturns a U.S. appeals court ruling that said an experimental school voucher program in inner-city Cleveland violated constitutional church-state separation provisions.
The 6-year-old Cleveland program provides parents with a tax-supported education stipend, which they may use to put their children into a school of their choice. This past year, the program provided vouchers of up to $2,250 for some 4,500 students, most of whom attended religious schools, Reuters reports.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the Cleveland program is “entirely neutral with respect to religion,” and provides benefits to a wide spectrum of people in financial need.
Rehnquist said the program “permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”
Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas rounded out the majority side.
But Justice David Souter, writing for the minority, noted that more than 95 percent of the vouchers in the Cleveland program were used to subsidize religious schooling. He said those figures illustrate that the program leans too heavily toward state sanctioning of religion.
“There is, in any case, no way to interpret the 96.9 percent of current voucher money going to religious schools as reflecting a free and genuine choice by the families that apply for vouchers,” Souter wrote.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined Souter in dissenting.
Ohio authorities said vouchers were used most at religious institutions because only a few secular schools and no suburban public schools have signed up to accept voucher students.
President Bush has been a key supporter of school vouchers, proposing in his 2003 budget a plan to give families in areas with failing public schools up to $2,500 per child for private school tuition.
Critics, like Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, say vouchers will funnel money away from public schools.
“Our nation’s commitment to public education is long-standing, built upon the principle of open and equal access for all our children,” Feldman told the Associated Press “This decision undercuts that principle and commitment.”
The high court’s decision came on the final day of its 2001 term. The next term will begin in October.